Why is it that we continually have to look back a hundred plus years ago to find ballsy female literary heroes, protagonist who go against the grain of what is expected of them, who are willing to push boundaries and stride out of their own?
Women with a fiery independence, who are unwilling to conform to the times they live in, seem sparse in modern literature. Admittedly, what we have to push against is less visible than a century ago, but if anything that means our voices – including our fictional ones – need to be louder to help reflect back at us what society keeps missing. I can’t think of many female characters from contemporary books I’ve read recently that with grit. The only one that springs to mind is the heroine of Where’d You Go Bernadette, a character who was more defined by her career than her husband and who is genuinely different and unafraid to rip up the How Women Should Behave rulebook.
Rachel Cooke asks a similar question in this Guardian article where she questions the lack of interesting, intelligent (dare I say feisty?) single women in fiction. In the feature, Cooke singles out George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women as being one of the few works of fiction where spinsters are, if not happier than their married counterparts, certainly no unhappier. And it was a recommendation worth taking. The Odd Women is a brilliant read, uncomfortable at times, bleak for the most part, it’s also fascinating and compelling. Distilled to its essence, The Odd Women is about money, marriage and manners and two self-sufficient women who care more about books than bonnets.
The Odd Women of the title are odd in number; at the tail end of the 19th Century there were half a million more women in the UK than men and as a result there were thousands of ‘spare’ female, destined for a life as a governess or nurse, eking out their pennies in lonely, draughty lodgings. The protagonists, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, are also odd as in different, they refused to accept their lot in a society that reduced single women to sad wretches who pined for a man and life of embroidery.
The women in Gissing’s book are battling against a patriarchal Victorian society, a world so rigid and staid that its oppression, even from the pages of a book, feels as great as the dense London fog that used to suffocate the city (as described in a powerful scene by Gissing). Fighting hard against these narrow expectations and recruiting foot soldiers by the day, Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn run a charity that encourages young women to think beyond marriage and broaden their career horizons by equipping them with skills such as typewriting (which sounds as revolutionary as flower arranging, but at the time armed women with the weapons needed to infiltrate an office, much to the chagrin of many a male office clerk as brilliantly observed in this novel).
Amongst Rhoda and Mary’s acquaintances are the three surviving Madden sisters – Alice, Virginia and Monica – who Rhoda first met years ago in Clevedon when their father and siblings were alive. Left orphaned while still young, the women have struggled to survive, taking gruelling jobs for little money, the hard toil wearing them down to an extent that shocks Rhoda when she meets them again in London. Monica, the youngest and prettiest is exhausted by thirteen hour days in a drapery and dismayed at the future ahead of her, and is determined to marry and avoid the fate of her two spinster sisters who live miserable half-lives. On one of her Sundays off, Monica meets Mr Widdowson, a dour, but seemingly kind man many years older than her. He has money and a nice house in Herne Hill and is so terribly persistent (some would say stalkery) that after a brief courtship, Monica agrees to marry him. Bad move, Mon.
Not that she really stood a chance. Marriage in Gissing’s world rarely ends well. He had two disastrous marriages himself and he wishes the same fate of most of his characters; marriage literally kills on more than one occasion.
The Odd Women is a wonderful, unpredictable, slightly idiosyncratic book and like nothing I’ve read before. It’s like an amalgamation of Dickens, Gaskell and the Brontes rewritten by George Orwell (who, incidentally, was a big Gissing fan). Gissing is not a pretty writer, there is rarely poetry in his prose, but his very economy is what makes the book so compelling and the plot is so neat that you barely notice there is one until it all begins to fall in place so beautifully.
It may even be called an early feminist novel, although I would dispute that; Gissing may have thought himself a frightful radical – and some of his ideas no doubt brought forth the smelling salts in certain circles – but underneath his boho bravado he’s as conformist as his main male character Everard Barfoot. There’s an uncomfortable moment when Everard is advocating hitting women who have done wrong, a statement Rhoda agrees with to a degree. There also prevails an idea that there are absolute feminine traits that women must battle against, that they must overcome their own femaleness in order to become equal to men – something Rhoda and Mary believe as much as Everard. Their opinion of many of their gender is as low as most men’s at the time and sisters are very much doing it for themselves; Rhoda and Mary couldn’t give a burning bra for working class women – theirs is a middle class gender fight.
Despite the bleakness, there’s something strangely uplifting about The Odd Women which I think is due to Rhoda, who may have her heart broken, but whose self-sufficiency and determination mean you can leave her at the end and know she’s going to be OK, if not exactly skipping off into the sunset. And doing OK in Gissing’s world is pretty much nirvana.
by Suzanne Elliott